Omega-3 fatty acids are all the rage right now and for good reason. A standard American diet, (appropriately abbreviated “SAD”) which is usually loaded with protein, saturated fat, and processed foods, tends to promote inflammation in our bodies. Over time, chronic inflammation can wreak havoc on your body causing all sorts of complications like skin eruptions (acne, eczema), chronic muscle or joint pain, sleep and psychological disorders, or weight gain. It may also leave you open to disease states like heart disease, cancer, or auto-immune diseases like Lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. Eating an anti-inflammatory diet with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, plant protein sources, and fewer processed foods is an excellent way to reduce chronic inflammation. Adding omega-3s can further tip the balance back in favor of anti-inflammatory processes.
What are good sources of omega-3?
The best source of omega-3 is cold water fish like salmon, sardines, herring, and cod. When authorities call it the best source, they mean it’s the most efficient source due to the fact that these fish contain the most readily usable forms of omega-3, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
But what if you’re a vegetarian? Or you just don’t eat fish? The good news is that there are plenty of non-fishy alternatives, so you can fulfill your omega-3 fatty acid requirements in many ways. The challenges are two-fold:
- The plant form of these fatty acids, alpha linolenic acid (ALA), has to undergo a conversion process in the body before it can be utilized by your body systems as EPA. Research has found that only a portion of the ALA is converted to EPA (Sanders TAB, 1983), thus you need to consume more plant-sourced omega-3s than you would if you got them from fish, a recommended total of about 1100-1600mg per day for adults.
- The other omega-3 your body needs is DHA, and that’s tough to come by in a diet devoid of fish. However, some microalgae do provide DHA. They’re also available in supplement form.
With all the different food options out there, it’s fairly easy to diversify your sources of omega-3s and never get bored. Check out some of your options below.
Walnuts and their lesser-known cousin, the butternut, are excellent sources of the omega-3, ALA. Just one ounce (about 12 walnut halves) has about 1,000mg ALA. Cashews and pecans contain lesser amounts. Omega-3 fatty acids are delicate and tend to oxidize quickly and go rancid. Your best bet is to buy raw nuts and roast them at home just before eating them. This can be done quickly and easily on the stove top in a dry frying pan over medium-high heat. Just stir them around constantly for a few minutes until you start the smell the oil inside the nuts heat up. Then move them to a plate to cool for a few minutes, and add them to your morning oatmeal, sprinkle them on top of a salad, or add them to trail mix for an on-the-go snack.
Flax seeds, chia seeds, and hemp seeds are all great sources of ALA. Flax seeds were favorite snacks of the ancient Romans who kept bowls of them around and took pride in chewing them thoroughly and methodically. You can get the most out of flax seeds by buying them whole and grinding them in small amounts. Keep the ground flax meal in the refrigerator, and sprinkle a tablespoon or so on your morning yogurt. Half a tablespoon contains about 6,000mg of ALA. Chia seeds are another nutty-tasting seed high in ALA. They have a unique property that allows them to form a jelly when mixed with liquid, which makes them a great addition to smoothies. Or you can add them whole to cereals or muffins for a nutty crunch. Look for hemp hearts in the natural foods section of the grocery store for another great source of Omega-3s. Hemp hearts have a mild grain-like flavor and texture, excellent when added to hot cereal or sprinkled on top of nut butter on toast.
Flax oil, walnut oil, and hemp seed oil are all excellent sources of ALA. Because omega-3 fatty acids oxidize so quickly when heated, these oils are not for cooking. But they make great, flavorful salad dressings, and are delicious drizzled on popcorn, or tossed with soba noodles and a little soy sauce. Buy these oils in small amounts and keep them in the refrigerator to slow their oxidation. Once opened, they should keep in the refrigerator for several weeks. If they start to smell fishy or like old oil paint, that’s an indication they’ve gone rancid, and you need to throw them out. Soybean and canola (rapeseed) oils also contain ALA, but are often highly processed and refined, which make them less healthy alternatives. Much of the soy and canola products in the U.S. are also genetically engineered, buy organic oils if this is of concern to you.
Any of the oils listed above may be taken by the spoonful as a dietary supplement. Capsule forms of these oils are also available. Flax oil has the most ALA of the oils mentioned, and is the easiest to find at your grocery store or supplement retailer. Micro-algae like spirulina and chlorella are great sources of ALA as well. Schizochytrium is a particularly advantageous algae option in that it not only contains ALA, but also DHA and EPA, which you won’t find in other plant sources. Read the supplement facts label for specific amounts contained in each product.
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Omega-3 fortified foods
Lots of foods on your grocery store’s shelves are now fortified with ALA, DHA, and EPA, including some peanut butter, dairy products, soy milk, and eggs. The label will usually tell you how much of each type of omega-3 is in a serving, and may even list the source of those fatty acids.
Recommended intake of omega-3s for non-fish eaters varies considerably. The dietary reference intake (DRI) for ALA is 1100mg per day for women, 1600mg per day for men. But due to the conversion issues discussed above, most practitioners recommend that their vegetarian and vegan patients consume 2-4 times that amount per day. Either way, a diet high in ALA-containing foods will fulfill your ALA needs just fine: a handful of walnuts with breakfast, flax seed salad dressing at lunch, and you’re covered. But because DHA is not present in appreciable amounts in plant foods, you’ll likely need to supplement with 300mg DHA per day from fortified foods or a blue-green algae supplement.